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The Illusion Of Hustle Culture Within A Disillusioned Britain

In a world where the cost of living is skyrocketing, the standard rhetoric that promotes the pursuit of hard work to achieve success is losing its traction. Britain’s recent housing and cost of living crises have begun to unravel a growing sentiment of disillusionment throughout the country. Though this may seem reactive in nature, it is actually indicative of a larger cultural issue that has saturated British politics for decades. Through its neoliberal framework, our cultural landscape endorses individualisation, profit, deregulation, and competition. Yet within this model, we see the social responsibility of the state being ever more pushed towards the individual. Hustle culture and its emphasis on one’s work ethic actively encapsulates this system. It seems that within our current cultural and political climate there is no longer room to look to the individual to solve these structural issues.

There is a common mentality in the UK that simple hard work and thrifty savings will get you to a place of financial security. A King’s College London study sees that almost “half (48%) the UK public think a key reason more young adults today cannot afford to buy their own home is they spend too much of their income on things like takeaway coffees and food, mobile phones, subscription services like Netflix and holidays abroad.” Yet in the UK’s current economic climate, it seems rather farfetched to believe that saving a few pounds worth of Netflix subscriptions a month is going to afford any young person their own home. Why must there even be a choice between paying for somewhere to live and actually having a life? With current housing costs at such an extortionate level, even if a young person were to afford their own home or even rent one, it is unlikely they would be left with any savings or disposable income to live with.

Britain's lack of affordable housing is pushing the vast majority of the population into the private rental sector. According to The Office for National Statistics (ONS), private rental prices have been estimated to have risen by 6.1% in October of 2023 in the UK, seeing the “largest annual percentage change since this UK data series began in January 2016.” This is not just a crisis affecting Britain’s youth as costs are clearly rising in all sectors of our society. Another ONS survey covering the same period showed that “1 in 20 adults (5%) said they had run out of food in the past two weeks and had been unable to afford more. This rose to 8% among parents of dependent children, 13% among renters, and 21% among renters with dependent children." With a large majority of the population unable to afford basic necessities, is there an argument to be made in support of hustle culture? 

The ONS has estimated that the number of job vacancies in the UK fell by 58,000 to 957,000, between August and October. Moreover, the average pay rise awarded in September was the smallest for six months. The Bank of England has also warned that higher interest rates are likely to affect the amount of job vacancies next year, driving up unemployment to 5%. This would result in more than 150,000 job losses and slow wage growth even further. We have already seen major companies like Spotify cutting jobs this month to keep up with this slow economic growth. It seems as though only wages and employment prospects are immune to the increases of this cost-of-living crisis. So, when companies are not paying staff enough to live and employees are facing an acute lack of job security, how then can the only solution be for people to work harder?

With the onslaught of worker’s strikes hitting a range of workforces across the UK over the past two years, there is a clear and growing disillusionment within this system. The benefits that hustle culture once promised are now nowhere to be seen. However, this current cost of living crisis is merely lifting the rug on just how toxic this culture has always been. Hustle culture is not simply a push to encourage a stronger work ethic, but indicative of the individualistic values that have for so long been ingrained in our political system. 

If we look back over ten years to the conservative party’s ‘Big Society’ model, spearheaded by David Cameron, it provides just one example of how this culture has manifested itself through politics. In his Big Society speech, Cameron advocated for the need to push power away from “the elite in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street.” Britain's financial crisis saw a push for individualism and anti-reliance on government. But when the government steps back, can people really afford to step up themselves?

The same old line to just work harder, once softly spun behind the veils of rags-to-riches narratives and underdog success stories, no longer seems to hold any gravity.  The illusion that if 1% can find success the other 99% simply aren’t working hard enough has been shattered by this current cost of living crisis. However, this is a concept that makes little sense regardless of the economic state of the country. It entirely rests upon the predication that everyone is starting on a level playing field. Such an idea holds no credibility when we consider how, according to the ONS “wealth is unevenly distributed between individuals in Great Britain, with the wealthiest 10% estimated to hold around half of all wealth.” 

Inequalities still plague the UK workforce, with women “more likely to enter the workforce with higher qualifications than men, but earn less per hour” as found by the UK Government Gender Inequality Roadmap. A similar phenomenon has been tracked by the Institute for Fiscal Studies who see that “educational performance among most ethnic minority groups in the UK has improved remarkably relative to the White majority over recent decades […] However, most continue to earn less than their White British counterparts, and all earn less on average than we would expect given their education, background and occupation.”

These inequalities make certain that it is only 1% and not 99% that defy these odds. This is not to diminish the talents and hard work of that 1% who have escaped these statistics. It is simply to consider that the hard work of an individual can only take one so far, especially when the systems and structures around them are not fit for purpose. What is so particular about this current cost of living crisis is that it is enveloping an even wider proportion of the population into this experience of inequality, that no amount of individual work is seemingly able to change. 



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